Written by: Larry Cohen & James Dixon (screenplay), Stephen King (characters)
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Michael Moriarty, Samuel Fuller, and Ricky Addison Reed
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I'm not a Nazi hunter. I'm a Nazi killer!"
Sequels that barely qualify as actual sequels are usually the pits. You know the drill: some opportunistic studio or distributor takes a recognizable property or title, produces a low-rent cash-in that barely connects to the original, and promptly enrages fans of said property. It’s among the most shameless practices in Hollywood filmmaking, and, to be quite blunt, A Return to Salem’s Lot is among the most shameless instances of it. Not only does it boast zero involvement from Stephen King (who has become quite familiar with this practice to be sure), but it also can’t even be considered a sequel to Salem’s Lot. It’s truly just a vampire movie that happens to carry that title, a fact that would be infuriating (or at least disappointing) if it didn’t spring from the mind of Larry Cohen.
But because it does, A Return to Salem’s Lot is one of the most unexpectedly entertaining sequels ever made. Once you get over the fact that it could have literally been titled anything else, it’s easy to see it as a total blast that puts the bloodsuckers front and center before pitting them against Michael Moriarty and Samuel Fuller. If only every sequel-in-name-only could fall back on that winning formula.
Moriarty is Joe Weber, an unscrupulous anthropologist shooting execution rituals in the Amazon before he’s dragged back to the States by his ex-wife (Ronnee Blakely). Upon arriving at the airport, he’s informed that his teenage son Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed) has become a holy terror, so much so that she’s ditching him and taking off with her latest husband. At a loss with what to do, Joe decides to take the kid up to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot, where he’s inherited a decrepit mansion from his late aunt. Or at least he thinks she’s deceased—it turns out she’s actually just one of the many undead that have come to populate the old town. Tired of living in the shadows, they’ve lured Joe back home to document their lifestyle and essentially write their Bible so the rest of the world will know their history. When Jeremy begins to be seduced by the allure of the vampire lifestyle, Joe is essentially stuck, as any attempt to leave meets with resistance from both the town and his son, who’s taken a liking to one of the younger bloodsuckers (Tara Reid).
To reiterate: despite the title, this has absolutely nothing to do with Salem’s Lot. Not the TV-miniseries, not the novel—nothing. None of what we see here is compatible with either, as none of the characters return. Likewise, the mythology presented here—that this clan of vampires is an ancient race that took up residence in Salem’s Lot during the Puritan era—comes close to matching up with what was presented in the original film or novel. Take whatever you know or expect to know and promptly toss it right out of your mind. Kindly ignore the poster art that completely evokes the original and promises the return of Count Barlow because he’s not walking through that door.
What you will find, however, is an entire town full of vampires with very few fucks to give. Ostensibly, they put on the air of a dignified historical society, and even insist that they’ve managed to curb their bloodlust by simply harvesting cows, now a renewable resource for consumption. Still, they have no qualms about baiting unsuspecting travelers—dopey teenagers, oblivious tour bus passengers—into becoming a feast when they need to celebrate a special occasion, such as a wedding between two vampires that still look like children. I can only presume that they aren’t actually children and that they’re actually much older vampires trapped in their child bodies, but, honestly, who knows with this movie. Cohen was seemingly given little mandate here besides “produce a sequel to Salem’s Lot—we don’t really care about the details,” and he suitably responded with this nutty riff on paranoia thrillers like Village of the Damned and The Wicker Man.
Salem’s Lot is now less a town besieged by sinister outside forces and more an unreal enclave unto itself, one that’s run by human drones during the day. By night, the vampire citizens roam the streets and even send their kids to school, where they learn a warped, misanthropic take on world history. Obvious discrepancies between moves aside, it’s a really killer mythology, and Cohen pokes around various corners of this secret vampire society. One particularly nice touch is a poster for the school’s production of Dracula, which foreshadows an awesome climax blending the vampire’s mythic past with its present. It also makes for a cool inversion on the usual formula: where many vampire takes see the bloodsuckers infiltrating human society, this one has an outsider reckoning with this weird Twilight Zone scenario.
And when that outsider is Michael Moriarty, it’s obviously even more interesting. His (sadly) final team-up with Cohen results in a typically manic sort of magic that made their collaborations so compelling. One of the most unconventional leading men ever, Moriarty just has this exasperated sort of conviction about him. There’s just enough arch to his performance and over-the-top line deliveries that lets us know that he gets it, but he’s otherwise quite committed to yet another bonkers premise. What I’ve especially always loved is just how unflappably confident his characters are, and that’s once again on display here. This poor guy is dragged from his job, stuck with his punk-ass kid, and then has to put up with a bunch of goddamn vampires, yet he never seems too shaken by it. There’s a kind of rugged practicality to Moriarty that works: “okay, so I’m stuck in the shit, so now what?”
In this case, Moriarty is joined by a duo that’s more than capable of keeping up with him. First is Reed, his on-screen snot of a son, a truly pubescent jerk who shouts half of his lines. He’d be grating if hell if he weren’t so hilarious, and an early scene where he helps his dad shake down a car dealer for a better deal is quite endearing. Kids in horror movies—especially butthead kids in horror movies—are often a dicey proposition, but the relationship between Jeremy and his dad forms a pretty solid crux for this one. Moriarty’s other, even more notable co-star is the aforementioned Samuel Fuller. Yes, that Samuel Fuller—he of Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, and White Dog fame. Of all the weird, unexplained aspects of this film’s production, I would most like to know just how Cohen pulled this off. It’s not that Fuller just makes an appearance: he first kind of staggers into the film as a kooky old man showing off a photo before eventually revealing that he’s a Nazi hunter. Er, excuse me—Nazi killer, he insists as he plows right through a vampire.
The last 30 minutes or so where Moriarty, Reed, and Fuller band together to finally burn Salem’s Lot to the ground is truly magnificent schlock, existing on that rare plane of movies that feel like they shouldn’t exist. It’s so fun that I wish I lived in an alternate universe where this was a backdoor pilot for a series documenting the further adventures of this wildly mismatched trio. Tell me you wouldn’t watch a movie where Michael Moriarty and Samuel Fuller travelled from town to town encountering bizarre phenomena. Supernatural doesn’t have anything on that shit.
Alas, A Return to Salem’s Lot is but a glimpse into that better world. What a glimpse it is, though: sure, it doesn’t even bother trying to recapture Hooper’s restrained, atmospheric approach, nor does it really capture any of King’s essence. Hell, outside of a few lines where the elder vampire statesmen sound like 80s neocons, it doesn’t even boast much of Cohen’s signature social commentary. No, this is just a fangs out, balls out vampire movie, complete with rubbery-faced monsters and heaps of gore, making it one of my favorite discoveries in recent memory.
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